Category Archives: Flockkeeping

The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes A Very Slow Road Trip

Caleb-dog and I took a lovely little road trip to the Georgia coast for a few days. We made it slow and easy; I decided in the interest of fuel economy to drive no faster than 65 miles per hour most of the way down on the Interstates. I loaded some audiobooks on my ipod, packed some snackage, and off we went. The trip down took about 5 1/2 hours, and I definitely got better gas mileage, but I got tailgated, honked at, and gestured at for going 5 miles under the speed limit. It took an act of will to maintain my steady pace. This while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps in addition to raging at the BP machine, we should examine our own sick need to drive everywhere fast and consume more fossil fuel than necessary.

On the coast I stayed with my dear friends the Spratts, who own a bed and breakfast in Darien, Georgia. If you are ever looking for a beautiful place to stay in a sleepy little coastal Southern town, please check out the Open Gates Bed and Breakfast. Jeff and Kelly are both trained biologists and know much about the area’s rich natural resources. They can point you in all kinds of fun directions. They will also serve you some amazingly sweet locally caught wild Georgia shrimp (the area’s major industry) with grits for breakfast. I stopped by the Georgia Shrimp Company market and brought home five pounds of large shrimp and froze them in one-pound batches.

Oh, and saltwater swimming pool? Best thing ever — no chlorine!

We had a brief but thoroughly relaxing few days of early morning runs, a visit to the beach at Jekyll Island, a couple of dips in that marvelous pool in the heat of the day, and just hanging out and visiting. I goofed around with Kelly and Jeff’s kids a good bit. Here is a song that Hank and I wrote last year. We thought it deserved its own video.


Yesterday instead of trudging back up the interstate, I decided to make the journey part of the destination and took a meandering backroad drive home, going about 55 most of the way. Including some protracted stops, it took about 6 1/2 hours to get home. We broke up the trip by visiting some farm stands, where I picked up some Vidalia onions, peaches, cantaloupe, and pecans.

And as we passed through Milledgeville, on impulse I turned off US 441 into Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful 544-acre farm there. We spent an hour or so walking the  verdant grounds and spotted all sorts of wildlife, including four deer. Caleb happily sunk himself into the cool mud at the edge of the pond.

A self-portrait Flannery O'Connor painted in 1953. Gotta love a woman who loves her birds.

And joy to my heart, the peacocks are back. Flannery O’Connor was a passionate keeper of chickens, ducks, and especially peafowl. This is one of the reasons I feel a particular affinity for this writer. In her honor, we have a hen named Mary Flannery.

I have read that peafowl are wonderful for mosquito control, and indeed, I didn’t see — or slap — a single skeeter during the hot and humid hour we spent walking around.

Also captivating was Flannery’s mother’s milk storage house. Early on, Regina actually worked the property as a dairy farm and stored milk in this little structure. It was restored last year. I love the bottles in the windowsill.

Between the slow drive and staying with friends, it was just about the most frugal vacation I have ever had — yet completely enjoyable. Because of the money I didn’t spend on gas and lodging, I was able to take Kelly and Jeff out for a big splurgy seafood dinner my last evening there. Another mountain of shrimp followed by vat of peach cobbler and ice cream.

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“Bok!” A Little Chicken Chat

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

Lately I seem to have turned into an informal Dear Abby on all things chicken care-related. I thought some of you, dear readers, might be interested in the questions that have come my way in the past several weeks. Here’s a selection of the questions and my answers.

Some of the questions I get are just entertaining, (chickenwatching is so much more interesting than television!), but most arise from pretty common problems and situations. If any of you are keeping chickens or considering starting a flock, this might be useful.

As I continue to get questions like these, I’ll post a “chicken chat” blog from time to time. So fire away! I welcome a challenge . . .

Q:  What does one do with a chicken one thinks is too noisy for a city neighborhood?

A: Chickens are just who they are, and they have to express their chickenality! If you have one who is particularly loud, then I guess you just have a loud bird. Has she been loud the whole time you have her? If it’s only been recently that she’s become noisy, then it may be a pecking order thing — she may be trying to assert her dominance over another hen. In which case, when things get worked out, she may quiet down. Maybe give it a week or two?

Q: Have you ever had a wheezy chicken? We have one that is wheezing on every breath, and seems to be having a hard time breathing. She also “sneezes” (if chickens sneeze) once in a while. Do you have any idea what this might be? It just started today.

Q: It started with just one, but seems to have spread through the other 4 — they are making sounds like a cough or sneeze, lethargy, eyes closed often and slightly smaller, poor appetite (they did really like the yogurt this morning). We checked for sour crop and didn’t feel a lump, I checked for mites and didn’t see any at all. Any ideas?

A: These birds probably have a little bit of an upper respiratory infection. Chickens get colds, too! Separate the sick ones from the rest of the flock because it’s pretty contagious and they’ll all get sick (they may already be). It’s usually not fatal, but they don’t feel good. Crush some fresh garlic (note that this might give the eggs a peculiar flavor) and mix it into their scratch or put about a teaspoon of fine garlic powder into a gallon of their drinking water. On the preventive side, if their quarters are damp, see if you can address that. A damp chicken is prone to catching colds. The henhouse should be dry and warm, or at least have one dry place to go to when it rains.

Q: One of my hens spent hours in the nesting box today and I finally got her out of there just a bit ago. She had laid an egg and left lots of feathers in the nest as well! I looked at her tummy area and there were bald spots! I didn’t really inspect it but wondered if you might have a clue to why she might be pulling out these feathers? She is about 8 months old, and she usually does take a long time in the nesting box but recently it was a LONG time — hours!  I pulled her out (and removed the egg), and she wandered around the yard for a while and then ended up back in there.

A: Your hen is broody: she is experiencing the irresistible urge to sit on a clutch of eggs and be a mommy. Sometimes they lose their feathers when they’ve been sitting on the nest a lot. We’ve only had a broody hen once, and I’d go back there every morning and take her out of the nest so she’d eat and drink, then eventually go back to her thing. Just make sure you take her eggs out from under her or she’ll try to hatch them — no such luck! It will pass eventually.

Q: One of my chickens has lost all of her feathers under her belly. She is not hanging out in the coop like she is brooding. She is laying wonderful eggs every day. She is eating well. What do you think this could be? My concern is that I don’t see new feathers growing and she is not losing feathers any where else.

A: Usually that bare belly is a sign of a broody hen. Have you checked her for mites? If she’s itching she might be pulling out her own feathers. If your birds have mites, you can usually see them crawling around. Make sure your chickens have a good place to take dust baths — that is one of the ways they control mites for themselves. Here’s a video showing my sun-drunk girls enjoying a dustbath.

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Meat

As a little girl I used to stand in my pajamas at the utility sink in the laundry room and watch my father clean fish after an evening on the river. He would empty a creel of eight or so trout under running water into the sink — brookies, browns, rainbows. Sometimes they were still faintly flapping and gasping. Dad would take a fish in one hand, and with a sharp knife in the other, he would slit its belly from gills to tail.

He would slip his finger in, and out would slide the guts and organs into the sink. Sometimes we’d find eggs close to the tail of the females. He would scrape scales off the skin and cut the head off. Then he would pack the cleaned fish along with several others in an old milk carton or plastic bag, which he would fill with water and stash in the freezer.

I watched my father catch, kill, and clean a lot of trout, and I would feel sorry for the trout. I also ate a lot of fried trout. I have long lived with an awareness of the conflict, but it has never kept me from eating trout (or fishing for them myself).

Lately I have been greedily devouring a wonderful book by Novella Carpenter called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Ms. Carpenter lives in a section of Oakland, California, that is so beset with poverty, homelessness, drugs, and crime that no one seems too worried about the goofy white girl who has taken over a vacant lot next door to her apartment and planted an organic utopia of fruits and vegetables and is keeping a slightly illegal array of chickens, bees, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and (once) pigs.

Her story is compelling and funny. Ms. Carpenter is earthy in many senses of that word — from her impressive growing abilities to her language to her fearlessness with livestock.

She is raising animals for meat. Ms. Carpenter is not insensitive to the full implications of breeding and caring for a creature for the purposes of killing and eating it, and her telling of the life and death of Harold the Thanksgiving turkey is detailed and unflinching. In the course of the book she kills and eats other animals, too. There is always a moment of breathlessness, in which she seems to step outside of herself and watch her own actions with horror and fascination. It is not unlike the sensation I experienced watching my father clean trout.


While she seems unresolved about the act of killing a sentient being and consuming it, I would argue that Novella Carpenter  is courageous — more courageous than most of us. Generally speaking (and faithful vegetarians notwithstanding), we modern carnivores don’t want to see, don’t want to know about that moment when a creature’s throat is cut, or when a body shudders in death throes, or when the eyes cloud over. We don’t want to know about plucking or flaying or bleeding out or viscera. Yet those moments have occurred so that we may eat what we crave. What we want to know is cellophane-wrapped protein that is completely disconnected from its life source — cold and bloodless, with little resemblance to an actual animal.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

My chickens have names and chickenalities. I know them, I nurture them, I even love them. People sometimes ask me if I would ever kill one of my chickens if I got really, really hungry. The answer is yes, I would. I have considered raising birds for meat, but I’m not sure how my neighbors would feel about the bloody mess the process entails. And truth be told, I’m not sure I’m up to it yet. I still see the fish flapping and gasping, but those were my father’s hands, not mine.

Angora Bunny

Recently I have been thinking about rabbits. Some say that rabbits are the new backyard chicken. I’m not so sure the analogy holds up, but then I got to thinking about knitting, and yarn, and spinning, and angora rabbits. So I’ve decided to do a little research. A couple of friends have offered to help me learn to spin fiber. Wouldn’t it be interesting to harvest angora and spin it into yarn?

Whether this would be a step closer to meat or a step further away I am not certain. But it is a step closer to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life — and death.

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When Chickens Sympose

I have to admit that when Oakhurst Community Garden director Stephanie Van Parys first uttered the words “Chicken Symposium” to me a few months ago, the image that popped into my brain was a gathering of chickens wearing little togas across their breasts and wreaths of laurel around their combs, sitting around an elegant Hellenic room reclined on pillows and sofas and wildly gesticulating with their wings, beaks open in passionate debate.

This is what a liberal arts education does for you (thank you, Professor Behan of intro philosophy). At least I keep myself amused.

Baby chicks for the raffle

I was even more amused when I arrived at the Decatur Recreation Center the morning of  February 6 to discover that, in fact, the chickens were right there in the mix. There were two bins of four-day-old chicks, plus Linda Hamilton’s array of fancy breeds (silkies, silver-laced wyandottes, and a few adorable little bantams that I wanted to steal!). And believe me, all of them had plenty to say.

Cute and cuddly bantam

Linda and her lovely ladies

And so did the speakers. It was a strong line-up. Jonathan Watts-Hull (who, I am proud to say, got his start after taking the first Chicks in the City class we ever offered and was our “star pupil”) led a session on “chicken chores,” Linda (who once took the class because she just wanted to meet some other folks interested in chickens) talked about breed selection, Andy “The Chicken Whisperer” Schneider was there to teach on illnesses and diseases, Veronique Perrot (also a class alumna) talked about how her chickens work for her in her garden. Greg Haney was there to talk about coop design. And I taught a session I called “Chicks Rule,” which was a crash course introduction to keeping chickens.

Taking questions, flapping wings

After two parallel tracks in the morning, we all gathered for some Q&A from the 50 or so folks who had signed up for the half-day symposium, eager to launch their flockkeeping careers. As you can see (below, center), I gesticulated wildly with my wings, beak open. And then the big excitement: a dozen folks went home with baby chicks to get them started!

So the first ever Chicken Symposium went off without a hitch, but with plenty of cackles, skwawks (hey! a palindrome!), and peeps. Can’t wait to hear what they have to say next year.

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The Land of Ooze

Mud pie, mud in your eye;
Mud on a snake bite, don’t you die;
Take a little rain, take a little dirt,
Make a little mud, get it on your shirt.
We’re all just slogging through the mud.

—Guy Clark, “Mud”

Songwriter and truth-teller Guy Clark was never so right — after a year of record rainfalls following years of dusty drought, we are all just slogging through the mud. It has rained here for most of the week. Most of the month, maybe even. The cats don’t like it, the dog doesn’t like it, the chickens don’t like it. Everyone’s getting a little crazy from it. And Georgia’s small farmers have been devastated by flooded fields and lost topsoil and fertilizer (to contribute to the Georgia Farmer Flood Relief Fund, please click here).

Me, I just pull on my big yellow galoshes and get out there. I miss my garden, and I want to watch the broccoli grow. There is only one way to get scraps out of the kitchen, and that is to slop through the mud to the compost bin at the back of my lot. We try to keep the floor of the coop dry with a box fan mounted overhead, but this much water seeps in under the foundation, and the mucky mess needs to be scraped and shoveled out. The hens stay inside or up on roosts as much as they can, but they can’t help but get some of the ooze on their feet and feathers.

"Please dry my feet."

Yesterday I dragged Caleb out into it for a brisk evening trot around the neighborhood. He protested at first, but we both resigned ourselves to getting wet, and I am quite sure it was glee I was seeing on his face as he shook all that mud onto my kitchen floor and cabinets when we got home.

You have to get out there. You have to get a little mud on you. It helps if you remember that we came from mud — the primordial ooze. We all just crawled out of the mud, Guy sings.

But we enjoyed coming in from the rain and mud, too. Caleb loves a good toweling off. For me, it was dry socks and the braised cabbage, roasted sweet potato wedges, and biscuits I had made earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll make a mud pie for dessert.


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Snow Day on the Southern Urban Homestead

Well, one can hardly call it “snow,” because it was less than an inch, but in classic Atlanta style, our roads are sheets of ice. The world (around here, anyway) has ground to a halt. Here are a few scenes from our silent, frozen morning.

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New Year’s Molt

Poor bedraggled Latifah

For the past week or so, the coop has been aflooff (I just invented that word, but none other would do) with feathers and down. The chickens are staging a mass molt. According to flockkeeper lore, molting ain’t fun for anybody. The girls are dropping their old plumage and growing their new. From an evolutionary perspective, it must be part of what links chickens to their close reptilian cousins (scientists tell us that chickens are direct descendants of the T. rex) — shedding skin, shedding feathers.

Poor scrawny Lili

They do seem pretty miserable. Most of them aren’t laying, and they look pathetic — all mangy and scraggly. And they’re cranky and tired — Victoria spent all day in a nesting box last week. (The rain, mud, cold temperatures, and short days don’t help.) It takes a lot of energy to build new feathers.

I wonder if the girls chose the turn into new year for their big molt on purpose. It seems like a good idea, to slough off all the old, dead stuff and to replace it with something tender and delicate with new life, with potential to be healthy and luminous and resilient. Clean out the closets, the expired foodstuffs in the pantry. Let go of past resentments and fears — the scars that have formed over old wounds.

Off with the old

It’s a hell of a process — uncomfortable, exhausting, even ugly — but aren’t we ready to be shed of those vestiges and welcome whatever comes next?

When I cleaned the coop the other day, all those dropped feathers went with the straw and manure into the compost. It’s not as if the old stuff is to be left behind and forgotten. It will work under the surface now, in new, hidden ways. It starts the cycle over again, preparing to help nourish the spring garden.

I’ve felt a bit bedraggled this holiday season, myself. Guess I was due a good molt. For the days of auld lang syne.

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